Zeke had no hair. Naturally I noticed this first. He had a scar over his mouth, which gave the impression of a harelip, but to my relief later that night when I decided I would fuck him, it was not a harelip. He had three gold hoops in his left ear and a small diamond in his nose. He wore black army boots. But this was not what I was immediately drawn to. On his left arm was a tattoo of an angel. I focused on it like a zoom lens.
“What are you staring at?” he said to me. He had left his table of scary-looking guys — a ragtag ensemble of goatees, tattoos and piercings — and stood at the edge of our table. He was truly menacing though vaguely familiar. I could see the fear on Alice’s face as he fixed his eyes on me. In a complicated medley of shame and eroticism, I thought briefly of Mrs. Kowolski, whose large red nipples were still an inextricable part of my sexual fantasies.
“Nothing,” I said. I looked down at my left hand, which was holding a cigarette, one of the new habits I acquired post-Esther, and saw that it was trembling slightly.
“Bullshit,” he said. He lifted my chin up with surprising tenderness. His hand was strong and white, the veins thick with blood. It was a gesture that didn’t match the threat in his voice. “You’re staring at something. Own up.”
“Your tattoo,” I said. I heard my voice tremble, an egregious mistake, something Esther, I am sure, would never have done. The electricity of her, the way she voyaged fleetingly through my mind, snapped me out of my fear. My subsequent and immediate rage, buoyed by a pack of Kool Milds and several vodkas straight up, gave me courage.
“I’m staring at your fucking tattoo,” I said, testing the waters.
His eyes narrowed and he looked like he might strike me at any moment. Far from being afraid, I was intrigued, a response that fascinated me. I took a sip of my drink, a puff of my cigarette and felt Esther’s soul inhabit mine. I attempted to stare him down. He never relented and I felt my face turning hot, then red. I was grateful that the bar Alice and I chose to get drunk in that night was very, very dark.
“What’sa matter. You have a thing for angels?”
“No,” I said.
He pulled a chair out from under the table, turned it around and sat down so that his legs were on either side of the backrest and his arms draped over the top. He never smiled though I kept expecting him to. Alice kept taking nervous sips of her drink, but it was clear that as far as Zeke was concerned, Alice was not in the room. I glanced at her and could tell instantly that she despised him. He continued to stare at me then slid his finger across my cheek. I felt something stir between my legs. It was then that Alice stood up and rolled her eyes toward the bathroom indicating that I should follow her there.
“‘Scuse me,” I said. I stood up but he grabbed my arm, twisting the skin with his hands. I did not let him see that he had hurt me.
“I’ll meet you at the door in five minutes,” he said as Alice marched away unaware.
I followed Alice to the bathroom without saying anything.
“Jesus H.,” she said. She tapped her long, painted fingernails on the sink quickly, like she was playing an imaginary piano. She bent over and examined her teeth in the mirror, wiping away an invisible smudge of lipstick. “How come we attract all the weirdoes?”
“I kinda liked him.”
She looked at me to gauge the degree of my seriousness. When she saw that I was, in fact, serious, she dissolved into paroxysms of groans and eyeball rolls.
Alice is my best friend, the unfailing rock upon which I have flung myself on more than one occasion. She is everything I have never been.
Number one, she is beautiful. Her hair is blond, she has green eyes and strangely dark eyebrows. Her skin is the color of wheat and her body extremely voluptuous. She has big boobs.
Number two, she is practical and linear in all her thoughts and actions. She never gets hysterical even when situations, as far as I am concerned, demand it. This is best exemplified by her response the time she flew to Arizona and the plane crashed on takeoff, killing three people on board. She left the site of the crash as quickly as possible so she could catch the next plane out. Because of this steely countenance she is the one person I would like to have by my side during a kidnapping or a riot.
Number three, she has a rigid set of personal standard about which she is unrelenting and implacable. These standards are not steeped in morality, but as would be expected, practicality. For instance, she never sleeps with anyone until several months of demonstrated affection and commitment take place, after which time the party in question is expected to test for all sexually transmitted diseases and report back to her with proof of his freedom from disease. This helps explain why she never gets laid.
And last of all, she never lies, even when it would clearly spare another’s feelings, because that way, she says, she doesn’t have to keep track of anything. But, as if to make up for this minor streak of selfishness, she is always loyal and forgiving of others and believes that you achieve the highest state of grace when a friend begins a sentence for the first time with the words, “Don’t tell anyone but–“
” Now she looked at me, having recovered from her seizures of shock and disgust and said, “He’ll hurt you, Louise. Mark my works. I bet if you asked him, he’d admit to torturing helpless little animals. Just look at him, for God’s sake. He looks like the kind of asshole who uses the word cunt to describe a woman. I’m not kidding. This is no laughing matter. You shouldn’t drink if this is gonna be the result.”
“He intrigues me,” I said. I lit a cigarette. “He told me to meet him outside five minutes ago.”
“Don’t go,” she said, touching my arm in a way that made me see she was serious and a little afraid for me. She had been this way for the nearly nine months since my sister died, unsure how to grapple with what she once called my alarming new penchant for one-night stands and vodka for breakfast. She had taken to inspecting me when she thought I couldn’t see her, filling my cupboards up with food when I was out, leaving three or four message on my answering machine when she hadn’t heard from me in a while. She would often say, “You never acted like this before,” referring to the fact that since my sister’s death I had acquired a habit of being late, sleeping through entire days and picking up men with tattoos and earrings. I would hug her for this protectiveness if I were not a Goldblum. Instead, the more Alice tried to steer me from harm, the more I became convinced that I did not need to be protected.
Briefly out eyes caught in the mirror. She saw something in my expression that made her eyes flick away. She clasped her purse shut with a certain finality. On the way out the door she said, “Just don’t let me find you in a goddamned alley with a baseball bat up your vagina.”
I stayed in the bathroom for another minute. I smoked my cigarette and stared at my face. My lips looked drawn and colorless. I was aware of a slight smudge of darkness — not quite circles — beneath my eyes. I looked less like Esther than I would have liked, though my brain was aware that on some level my memory made her more beautiful than she actually was, more exotic and gargantuan in her excess of courage and her cravings for danger. Before I left the bathroom to meet Zeke, I watched myself blow smoke through my nose the way Esther did when she wanted to annoy Maggie and I almost believed I was looking at her. I leaned over and kissed the mirror, leaving behind the imprint of my lips on the glass.
“See ya,” I whispered.
Zeke was standing by the door of the bar when I walked out. He seemed completely unconcerned by the rain. His trench coat flapped around his ankles. His expression did not change when he saw me. He just grabbed my elbow and led me to his car. “Where are we going?”
“You either trust me or you don’t,” he said.
“Then it should be more thrilling for you.”
I got in the car with him. Old Toyota, vinyl seats, crystal hanging from the mirror. The fluorescent streetlights made his face look irridescent. The mood exacted by the car, his ghostly face and the rain pelting the windshield reminded me of the sculpture back at my studio, the one sitting there unfinished. Incense and cigarette smells mingled with the scent of rain. “Where are we going?”
He was driving up Divisadero and had turned left on Fell.
“Do you believe in hell?” Zeke asked. He lit a cigarette. He did not use his hands when smoking. He exhaled smoke through his nose, the cigarette gripped between his lips.
“Yes,” I said. I thought of the old homestead, of Esther’s ghost inhabiting it completely. That was a kind of hell. I thought of the ghoulish hell that Catholics had, of all those fires and horned beasts. I thought that hell was more a state of mind than a place. “In a manner of speaking, I think there’s a hell.”
“You were going to make some witty comment,” he said. “I can tell by the way you paused before answering. You were going to repeat something you read in a clever book on popular culture. Something like, ‘Hell is a state of mind.’ I can tell you’re the clever type. Possibly an overachiever.” He stared at me with heroic menace, taking his eyes off the road for an alarmingly long time.
“Are you going to kill me?”
“I don’t usually go that far,” he said. He turned right on Stanyon, then right again and pulled his car onto the sidewalk in front of a massive, dilapidated Victorian with a turret and peeling paint.
“Casa Vincent Price,” I said.
He snickered in a strange way, without smiling. His coat was wet and smelled like Harry the Dog. As we walked up the stairs I thought of all the people I knew who had died. Harry the Dog, not a person exactly, but not a dog either, ran into a moving truck when I was eleven. Mr. Kowolski was electrocuted while pruning the hedges by his swimming pool. Danny Franconi died when his motorcycle went off a cliff in the Santa Cruz mountains. Then there was Esther.
“Of all the people I know who have died, not one of them has done so gracefully,” I said.
He stopped for a minute and turned around. He was two steps above me, looking down at me. He appeared to be amazed, though I was not sure why. Then he walked on. “Are you normally this weird?” he asked.
“This is one of my good nights,” I said.
“Because if you plan on killing me,“ I continued, “Alice knows I’m with you and she says if she finds me in an alley with a baseball bat up my you know what, she’ll cut your…”
“Now that’s interesting,” he said. He rubbed his chin, mockingly introspective. Then abruptly he opened the car door and told me, not unpleasantly, to get the fuck out of the car. I was not afraid. I don’t know why, because my brothers and sisters, Esther especially, have always teased me for being the Goldblum coward. We walked inside the entry, a spooky hallway of white alabaster and gnarled antique chandeliers that gave off a muted yellow glow. There was a library smell of books and dank air about the building that made me feel melancholy. I looked up at the elaborate staircase that spiraled into a domed ceiling. He took my hand and we walked up the stairs. I turned around in time to see one of the tenants open the door and stare at us, then close it again slowly, the hinges howling in the otherwise silent lobby.
We got to his apartment on the top floor and went inside. He did not turn on any lights at first and all I could see was a long hallway and, at the end, a huge bay window and the lights of the city flickering through it. The same smell in his car was in his apartment, a strange, bitter aroma of spices and cigarettes. He went into a room on the left and turned on the light. I looked inside and saw an immaculate kitchen filled, to my surprise, with beautiful old furniture. Several dishes were stacked neatly in the drainer. A large, black-and-white photograph of the backside of a naked woman hung on the wall over the sink. She was lying on a bed, her hands bound behind her. He saw me looking at it.
“Lisa Silburner, 1988,” he said.
There were more. As we moved through the apartment, a studio furnished improbably with elegant antiques, I noticed dozens of photographs, mostly of Lisa Silburner in various states of bondage. In the bathroom there were two photographs, one of a penis, the other a vagina. I wondered if they were Zeke’s and Lisa Silburner’s but could not bring myself to ask, to imagine knowing.
In the main room was a large, neatly made bed. Above it was Lisa Silburner again but this time fully dressed, wearing a hat with a large flower on the front. She was smiling, her lips slightly parted and her prominent nose flaring. Her hair was red and wild. Her eyes, dark and inscrutable. She was oddly beautiful.
“Your girlfriend?” I asked. He took his coat off and stared out the window.
“Not really,” he said.
He hung his coat up in an old armoire. Before closing the doors, I saw a shelf full of camera equipment. Next to the bed was a door with a sign in bold letters: DARK ROOM. YOU FUCKING OPEN THE DOOR, I FUCKING KILL YOU.
There was a large poster on the main wall. ZEKE HEIRHOLM. JULY 13TH THROUGH JULY 19TH. Below the words was a black-and-white photograph of two hookers standing beneath a Guess jeans billboard depicting a hooker wearing Guess jeans. The Guess model did not appear to be as quietly desperate as the real hookers. Under the picture was the address of a gallery on Gough Street./span>
“Are you a photographer?” I asked.
He glared at me. Then he lit a cigarette and sat down on the edge of the bed. Stupid question.
“I like tying women up,” he said. “It’s my thing. I’m telling you that now before you take your clothes off because I’m a decent guy. But once you take your clothes off you’ve agreed to go the distance. I might hurt you. I haven’t killed anyone. Not yet. The safe word is cease. You say cease, I stop. Stop does not mean stop. No does not mean no. Cease means no. Cease means stop. Do you understand? We can start slow. But we don’t stay slow. Not over the long haul.”
It sounded like a job interview. But I hardly knew what he was talking about. I lit a cigarette. My hands were trembling.
“You got anything to drink around here?”
He produced a bottle of something and two shot glasses. He handed me one of the shot glasses. There was an image of a cable car on its surface. I drank the contents. Ouzo. I thought about calling a cab. I looked at the picture of Lisa Silburner, 1988, fully clothed, of the contempt in her beautiful face.
I remembered how my brother Eddie had told me he was “eradicating” just moments before he hacked his finger off. I thought about how some things have their own momentum, their own way of launching forward, pushing aside the cluttered flotsam of all expectation. Progress is not linear, I thought.
“No black eyes,” I said, unbuttoning my jeans. “I got an appointment tomorrow.”